Reuters reporters imprisonment: When Myanmar’s progress towards democracy was put to question

WION Web Team
New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaUpdated: Dec 21, 2018, 03:31 PM IST

Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and (right) Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, after their sentencing. Photograph:(Reuters)

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As per reports, the journalists were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar after being invited to meet the police at a restaurant.

One of the major upheavals in South Asia this year was the jailing of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The journalists were detained in Myanmar since December 12, 2017. At the time of their arrests, they had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Rakhine state. The reporters were sentenced to seven years in jail under the Official Secrets Act in September 2018.

As per reports, the journalists were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar after being invited to meet the police at a restaurant. The reporters were held incommunicado at a secret interrogation camp for the next two weeks.

The reporters, who pleaded not guilty, said they were handed papers by police shortly before they were detained, and a police witness testified that they had been set up. 

The pre-trial hearings in the case began on January 10, 2018. The same day, the military said that its soldiers murdered 10 captured Muslims, whose bodies were previously discovered by security forces in a mass grave in Rakhine, during insurgent attacks.

The next major development came in February when news agency Reuters published the investigation that the two reporters had been working on. The publication described Myanmar’s security forces and local Rakhine Buddhists’ involvement in the killing of the 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys buried in the mass grave at Inn Din.

The government said it would take action against the members of its security forces involved in the killings, ruling out any relation to the Reuters report.
In March, leading human rights lawyer Amal Clooney joined the legal team representing the two journalists. She stated that the two reporters are being wrongly prosecuted for reporting news.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being prosecuted simply because they reported the news,” Clooney said in a statement.

On July 9, the reporters were charged for breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Both journalists pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, telling Yangon district judge Ye Lwin they “followed journalistic ethics,” news agency Reuters reported.

In less than a fortnight, on July 16, one of the reporters gave the first detailed of what exactly happened the night when both the reporters were arrested. Wa Lone stated that Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin had called him at least twice on December 12, demanding a meeting at which the officer abruptly handed both reporters some papers. Lone added that they were arrested by plainclothes officers almost immediately after Naing Lin gave him the papers, which he did not have time to look at.

Lone also told that they were deprived of sleep for around three days, adding that the interrogation focused on their reporting of the Inn Din killings, rather than on the documents they are accused of obtaining.

The case has raised questions among a number of political leaders in the United States and Europe, human rights advocates and the United Nations about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in August called for the immediate release of two Reuters reporters.

In a report issued on August 27, UN investigators said Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya with “genocidal intent” and for the first time explicitly called for Myanmar officials to face genocide charges over their campaign.

The military in Myanmar denied past accusations that it had committed genocide against the Rohingya and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.
Early in September, a Myanmar judge found the reporters guilty and sentenced them to seven years in jail.

The court determined that “confidential documents” found on the two would have been useful “to enemies of the state and terrorist organisations”. Documents in their possession and on their phones were “not public information.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said the verdict “sends a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly, but must rather make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution.”

Press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States, Canada and Australia had called for the journalists’ acquittal.

On December 12, hundreds of activists and journalists marked the anniversary of the arrest of the two journalists and called for their release at a rally in the country’s largest city Yangon. Students, journalists and writers sporting t-shirts that read “Journalism is not a crime” and “Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo” lit candles and held a minute’s silence for the two reporters, news agency Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the two Reuters reporters have lodged an appeal against their conviction and sentence. An appeal hearing is scheduled for December 24.